I love reading travel books—they take me outside myself and into another world. Having traveled so much as a child, I don’t envy these writers their adventures, but I feel a kinship, a friendliness, admiration, and I love the imagery and the stories. Here is my favorite opening of all time…written by my mother in her book Around the World by Mistake, in which she recounts our adventures of traveling around the world on a freighter back in 1963:
Alex had been lying in the hammock under the ancient olive tree in front of our tiny house on Corfu Island in Greece. I was sitting nearby on an old upturned wine barrel, savoring the fragrant blend of thyme, orange blossoms, and fresh salt air. The children’s voices reached over to us from the stony beach where they played on a decaying caique – a Greek fishing vessel drying in the sun.
Our cottage on the shores of northern Corfu was tucked in an orange grove overlooking a sparkling Greek bay. Activities were fishing boats at dawn, delivery of the morning milk to our door in the cow itself, ear-shattering thunderstorms, and a climbable galleon-sized wreck rotting on the beach at the foot of the garden. Our two youngsters, seven and eight years old, spoke Greek like natives and had been incorporated into a gang of Greek children ranging in age from six to sixteen. In return I taught them all painting and sculpture.
I watched their angular silhouettes move like dancers against a backdrop of blue sky and even bluer water, water which barely whispered in the still summer afternoon. Crickets and tree frogs hummed loudly.
“We should send the children to school next year,” Alex said.
“What for?” I asked. “They’re learning more living here in Greece and playing with the other kids than they’d ever learn in school.”
“There’s more to school than learning about life. There’s reading, math, history, geography.”
“When they get old enough I wish they’d get jobs as cabin boys and girls and go around the world,” I mused. “I’d like them to experience that it really is round. And it would be great for them not to have dark blotches in their minds where India and China ought to be. Once they’re in school they’ll never be able to learn anything.”
“If we didn’t put them in school for another year, we could take them around the world ourselves.”
—Jane Winslow Eliot, Around the World by Mistake
Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen:
Seabirds are aloft again, a tattered few. The white terns look dirtied in the somber light and they fly stiffly, feeling out an element they no longer trust. Unable to locate the storm-lost minnows, they wander the thick waters with sad muted cries, hunting seamarks that might return them to the order of the world.
In the wake of hurricane, the coast lies broken, stunned. Day after day, a brooding wind nags a the mangroves, hurrying the unruly tides that hunt through the flooded islands and dark labyrinthine creeks of the Ten Thousand Islands. Brown spume and matted salt grass, driftwood: a far gray sun picks up dead glints from the windrows of rotted mullet at high-water line.
From the small settlement on the Indian shell mound called Chokoloskee, a baleful sky out toward the Gulf looks ragged as a ghost,unsettled, wandering. The sky is low, withholding rain. Vultures on black-fingered wings tilt back and forth over the broken trees.
Try writing the opening of a travel book. Bring us into… the place, with all its strangeness and exoticness and color and light. Show us your mood through the writing. You don’t have to go anywhere to think like a travel writer. Observe your surroundings as though you have never seen them before. Be awed. Be afraid. Be delighted. But don’t tell us that – show it in your handling of your travel prose.
And, as always, don’t just describe what you see. Use all your senses. Evoke a mood, a quality.
Be brave. Have fun.
From Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road:
In the dawn the land is empty. A causeway stretches across the lake on a bridge of silvery granite, and beyond it, pale on its reflection, a temple shines. The light falls pure and still. The noises of the town have faded away, and the silence intensifies the void – the artificial lake, the temple, the bridge—like the shapes for a ceremony which has been forgotten.
As I climbed the triple terrace to the shrine, a dark mountain bulks alongside, dense to the skyline with ancient trees. My feet sound frail on the steps. The new stone and the old trees make a soft confusion in the mind. Somewhere in the forest above me, among the thousand-year-old cypresses, lies the tomb of the Yellow Emperor, the mythic ancestor of the Chinese people.
From Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar
Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it. Those whistles sing bewitchment: railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink. The train can reassure you in awful places—a far cry from the anxious sweats of doom airplanes inspires, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that affects the car passengers. If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travelers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to—like that lucky man who lives on Italian Railways because he is retired and has a free pass. Better to go first class than to arrive.
From Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands: I first realized the hold the desert had upon me when travelling in the Hajaz mountains in the summer of 1946. A few months earlier I had been down on the edge of the Empty Quarter. For a while I had lived with the Bedu a hard and merciless life, during which I was always hungry and usually thirsty. My companions had been accustomed to this life since birth, but I had been racked by the weariness of long marches through wind-whipped dunes, or across plains where monotony was emphasized by the mirages shimmering through the heat. There was always the fear of raiding parties to keep us alert and tense, even when we were dazed by lack of sleep. Always our rifles were in our hands and our eyes searching the horizon. Hunger, thirst, heat, and cold: I had tasted them in full during those six months, and had endured the strain of living among an alien people who made no allowance for weakness. Often, in weariness of body and spirit, I had longed to get away.
And here’s another excerpt from Around the World by Mistake by Jane Eliot:
I had stopped against the last three rungs at the top of the ancient iron fire ladder, almost half way between the floor and the top of the dome in the Mother of all Churches: Aghia Sophia. I was alone. Well, not exactly alone. If I looked straight down five stories, I could see Alex leaning against an enormous iron wheel, seemingly to keep it from moving. Beside him Abdul, glowing in a white linen suit topped with a wide-brimmed white Panama hat, locked it in place. Another six men, in dark grey work-clothes, receded anonymously into thicker shadows around the fire ladder’s base.
>Under these conditions, it’s better to look up. Above me floated the most influential dome in architecture, its crown lost in darkness some five stories beyond my ladder’s end. A ring of forty thick stone ribs separated by arched glass windows defined the circumference of the dome’s immense base. If I could have stretched my arms fifty feet to either side of my lofty perch, I could have touched the base of the great arched walls. There was nothing in the way. I was floating in space scooped out from infinity by the architects Anthemios and Isidorus, then held in place for some fourteen centuries essentially by the integrity of their mighty design. Many thousands can fit into Aghia Sophia at one time and they have, whether to worship or to seek sanctuary in time of wars, witch-hunts, crusades, conquests, riots and restorations – separately and together.
From the grandeur of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque down to the tiniest of Christian churches sprinkled like sugar cubes across the thyme-purpled landscape of the eastern Mediterranean, to the Duomo of Florence, Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, and our own Capitol in Washington, all were birthed by glorious Aghia Sophia.
Little remains of its fabled Byzantine embellishments. Gone are the emperors in their golden robes, followed by their trains of sugar-stuffed courtiers playing with their golden mechanical toys. Gone, too, are the great silver iconostasis and the golden altar. A few of the frescoes and mosaics remain. History’s dark shadows are still wrapped around porphyry columns once stolen from pagan temples. Shadows penetrate the gouged eyes of frescoed saints; they encircled the great green discs from which the golden name of Allah glows; they blur the edges of holy space now become secular. Yet nothing important is missing.
“Do you wish to go higher?” Abdul’s voice floated up.
“This is fine.” My voice floated down.
I had met Abdul two hours earlier when I looked into the two pools of dark amber that were his eyes as he said firmly: “Aghia Sophia is closed for ten days’ repairs.” We had taken the morning flight up from Greece. Alex was writing an article on Istanbul. But there was to be no entrance into the great church. No way. That was Abdul’s position.
“You are Americans, You live in Hollywood. All Americans live in Hollywood,” he changed the subject after half an hour of us trying to persuade him to let us in. “You make my photograph. Carry it to Hollywood. My dream is to be a movie star.”
“Closed?” My mind was on the church.
“Closed.” He shook his white sleeves to show they were empty. His mind was on Hollywood.
You cannot tell about other people’s dreams, nor anticipate the accidents of life.
I agreed to photograph him. I had only one roll of twelve Roliflex negatives with me, but obviously closed meant closed. I’d get more later. Abdul posed happily against the front doors: Voluptuous lips wet: Victor Mature. Click. Eyes squinting with passion: Rudolf Valentino. Click. Profile, nose in air: John Barrymore. Click. Deadpan, George Raft. Click. Eyelids veiling the goodness of his heart in an evil world: Humphrey Bogart. Click. About to open the door: Charles Boyer. Click. One hand in pocket, murderous: Edward G Robinson. Click. Vacuous: Robert Taylor. Click. Eyebrows meeting in a steeple: Don Ameche. Click. About to bring the chili rellenos: Cesar Romero. Closeup: Hat at a rakish angle, one shoulder forward, intense: Abdul himself. Click. Eleven pictures done
I kept back one for good luck.
“Wait here,” Abdul ordered. A fidgety twenty minutes later, the fire ladder platform was rolled up to the three story sized bronze doors by six panting ‘Istanbullions.’ The base held a folded iron ladder pointing up into the air about eight feet. It was wrapped in cloth rags. “The iron gets too hot for the hands in a fire.” Abdul explained. The ungainly machine ran silently on two eight-foot high, rubber-sheathed wheels
“Our machinery is not up to date, but we take good care of it,” Abdul said proudly.
Pulling out an iron key about a foot long, Abdul slid it into the great front door keyhole, turning it with both hands. The doors slid open on well-oiled hinges. “Go in,” he motioned. There was no electric light – only grey shadows on silver atoms. We had the entire church to ourselves. The men rolled their machine into the center under the dome, and cranked the ladder straight up. When it reached some five stories up into the luminous dark, they stopped and turned to me.
“You can go take pictures.” Abdul smiled the gratitude that knows no bounds.
I climbed the shaky rungs to where the ladder ended in mid-air, my Roliflex with its one negative dangling from my neck. I floated in space scooped out from infinity and, hanging on with one hand I lifted my camera. The click rolled down the dome, the semi-domes, and the quarter-domes. I wound and clicked the now empty camera a dozen times more so Abdul would hear and not call me down. I became the still camera and the thirteenth negative. Shadows, space and silence were silver-printed on my soul.
- the storm passing
- wiping away the tears
- being brave
- finding space
- silver sandals that walk on air
- stories from Nasreddin Hodja
- a great big hug
Special thanks to Mike Bowers for the inspiration for this newsletter. And in memory of my mother – can’t believe that already a whole year has passed!